Women To Read is a monthly column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Welcome to another Women to Read! This time around, I have two novels and two short stories to add to your summer reading list. Pull up a beach blanket or a porch swing, pour yourself a cool drink, and dive in.
Is it really possible I’ve never recommended Maria Dahvana Headley’s work in all my years writing this series? I adore her writing, so assumed I’d covered it, but it seems I have not. Time to rectify that! Maria Dahvana Headley is a multiply-award-nominated, best-selling author. There are many starting places I could recommend, but my choice is her latest novel, The Mere Wife which–as of this writing–may well be my favorite.
The simplest description of The Mere Wife is that it is a modern re-imagining of the legend of Beowulf, focused primarily on the women by expanding and exploring their roles. Through the lens of the legend, Headley delivers a powerful story about what happens to veterans when they come home from war; about different kinds of love and how they can uplift you or break you apart; about the roles women are often forced into and what they make of those roles; about the monstrousness of mothers and sons. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Dana Mills is a soldier, seemingly beheaded live on camera as a message to America, but she survives, waking up six months pregnant with no memory of the intervening time. She returns home to a world in which she no longer fits so goes into hiding in the mountains above the exclusive gated community of Herot Hall. In an abandoned train station inside the mountain, she gives birth to her son, Gren. She tells him the world is full of monsters, so they must remain hidden, but Gren is fascinated with the houses below–one in particular, where a young boy named Dylan lives. Gren sneaks out, and the boys play together without their mothers’ knowledge. Dylan’s mother, Willa, finds traces of Gren’s presence–scratches in the furniture, and what appears to be an animal’s claw caught in the carpet. Thus, the hunt for a monster begins, led by local police officer, Ben Woolf.
But who’s ever safe? Down below us are the kind of people who walk armed into churches and movie theaters and through libraries, blast fevers into federal buildings, and build bombs out of things they bought cheap at a hardware store. What kind of myth is it, that people like them are keeping the rest of us safe?
The story maps well to the Beowulf legend, complete with kings and caves and the loss of an arm. Headley adds layers of richness that speak directly to our current world, and in tying them to the legend of Beowulf, shows that everything old is new again, and that certain horrors have always existed. There have always been those inside the circle of light, safe in the king’s hall, and those outside, treated as other, and seen as monstrous.
As with all of Headley’s writing, The Mere Wife is gorgeous. She plays deftly with metaphor, blurring the line between literal monsters and those society paints as monsters for the crime of not fitting within certain proscriptive boundaries, for example a black woman speaking up and demanding to be treated as an equal, rather than staying silently in the background. The references to Beowulf never feel forced, enriching the story rather than distracting from it. Similarly, Headley’s exploration of friendship, love, motherhood, and femininity, all add new dimensions to the original legend.
The characters, taken from archetypes, become fully-fleshed human beings here. Almost everyone in the novel is simultaneously sympathetic and monstrous, made so by their choices and their circumstances. The relationship between Gren and Dylan is the perfect example. It is at once touching and innocent, unburdened by the expectations of society, yet it marks the turning point in the boys’ relationships with their mothers, introducing antagonism and setting in motion a terrible chain of events. I could ramble on, but I suggest reading the novel for yourself. It’s gorgeously and powerfully written, whether you are familiar with the legend of Beowulf or not.
Emily Lundgren is a Midwest-based author, and my recommended starting point is her unsettling story “The Passenger” recently published at Shimmer. (Oh, Shimmer, I’ll miss you!) The story opens as Kara waits for her friend Ludwig to pick her up after work. Wig has just broken up with his girlfriend, Miranda, and Kara is hoping to turn their friendship into something more. Lundgren effectively sets the scene, letting readers know something is off, right from the start.
I try to take a picture of the eerie. The power’s out, so I’m like, okay, standing outside the Pump n’ Stuff, looking at the gas pumps. My last customer was twenty minutes ago. Down the street by the McDonald’s, the black veiny power lines seizure under the blinking traffic lights. I listen to the curdles of wind. There’s no one around.
When Wig shows up, he barely speaks to Kara, and his skin looks sickly. As Wig drives, Kara begins receiving texts from Miranda, asking her if she’d seen Wig, begging her to respond. The texts grow increasingly frantic. Miranda claims Wig is missing; she claims he keeps texting her a single odd message; she thinks he might have killed himself. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Kara and Wig had been messing around with magic spells, and that things haven’t been right with Wig for a while. He’s dropped out of school, and seems lost. Kara hasn’t been entirely willing to acknowledge these things, holding an idealized picture of Wig to go with relationship she wants them to have.
“The Passenger” is tense, and highly atmospheric. Lundgren does an excellent job of layering in background information and little details that point to reality being askew, creating a mounting sense of dread. She also uses language to great effect. Kara has a strong inner voice, and there’s a rhythm to the text that pulls the reader through to the end, where sentences begin to fragment, mirroring the breakdown of reality, and Kara’s growing uncertainty about the world.
Sheree Renée Thomas has been an awards finalist both as an author, and an editor. My recommended starting place is “Teddy Bump”, from the most recent issue of Fiyah. Much like Lundgren’s story, “Teddy Bump” starts with a seemingly-innocent scenario – a group of girls in a playground – and the creeping sense of something wrong.
Melanie swings from a frayed brown rope. Her ankle socks must have looked good in her shiny black Mary Janes, but one shoe is missing. Her giggles bounce off the shards of ice atop the frozen red earth of Miss Dinah’s playground. They echo around her, crimson crystals glistening beneath her tiny feet. One shoe on, one shoe off, locked somewhere in an old dusty box, the label is faded, her name long since unremembered, unread.
The girls, Melanie, KeKe, Ruby, and Amber, are all missing. They aren’t simply spending time in a playground, they’re trapped there by Miss Dinah, a haint with a mercurial temper–Miss Dinah has already transformed several other unfortunate girls into perpetually weeping stones that decorate the playground. She wants the girls to have fun, to keep laughing and playing whether they feel like it or not, and grows enraged when they don’t go along with her idyllic vision. Ruby, the narrator, is trying desperately to hold onto memories of her family. Melanie, the youngest, is still innocent, and less troubled by their situation, but Amber and KeKe want out. Together, the girls devise a plan to turn Miss Dinah’s love of games and challenges against her and escape.
“Teddy Bump” plays with the tropes of the trickster tale embodied in Miss Dinah, who can’t resist a challenge. Each section is divided by bits of counting/clapping/jump rope rhymes, which suit the story perfectly–emblematic of innocence and children playing, yet sinister as well. Given the girls’ situation, it’s impossible not to hear the sing-song rhymes in a horror-movie-esque minor key. Themes of innocence and horror run throughout the story. Thomas’ gorgeous descriptions and striking imagery are played against the girls’ terrifying situation. Ruby’s precious memories of her family are played against her speculation as to whether she and the other girls are truly “missing”, as in whether anyone misses them, because as little black girls, their lives are disposable. It’s heartbreaking, but again, Thomas counterbalances the pain with moments of triumph and joy as the girls re-take control.
Stephanie Feldman is an author, editor, and teacher, and my recommended starting place is her Crawford Award-winning novel The Angel of Losses. As children, sisters Marjorie and Holly shared a room, their hopes and dreams, and always looked out for each other. They particularly delighted in snuggling under their blankets to listen to the fairy tales their grandfather would tell about the White Wizard. As adults, however, they’ve grown apart.
At college, Holly met Nathan, the man who would become her husband. A deeply religious member of the Berukhim Penitents, Nathan is part of a mystical sect of Judaism concerned with the Lost Tribes of Israel and the coming of the Messiah. Holly converted, taking the name Chava, and now Marjorie feels she barely knows her sister. Furthering the tension between them, Holly and Nathan now live in the house where Marjorie and Holly grew up. (Marjorie was supposed to live there when their parents moved to Florida so she could work on her dissertation about Gothic literature and the varying legends surrounding the mythical figure of the Wandering Jew.)
Marjorie tries to make peace with her sister and her brother-in-law, especially now that Holly is about to give birth to her first son, but everything she says comes out wrong. When Marjorie arrives to reclaim her grandfather’s old books so that Nathan and Holly can convert the storage room into a nursery, she finds an old notebook of her grandfather’s. It contains one of his fairy tales, but instead of the White Wizard, the main character is the White Rebbe. Titles written on the first page of the notebook point to three other notebooks about the White Rebbe, but they are nowhere to be found.
When her nephew is born, Nathan and Holly name him Eli after Marjorie and Holly grandfather–and Marjorie’s close relationship with her grandfather makes her extra protective of her nephew. The night before Eli’s circumcision, Marjorie interrupts a ritual Nathan and his friends from the Berukhim Yeshiva are carrying out. He claims it’s to protect Eli, but seeing Eli outside in the cold enrages Marjorie. She’s convinced Nathan’s faith has endangered his son, and within a few weeks, Eli is indeed rushed to the hospital after suffering a seizure. Marjorie simultaneously blames herself as well as Nathan, and begins to suspect that everything is connected–Nathan’s faith, her research, her grandfather’s stories, the mysterious old man she keeps encountering, and even Eli’s sickness. His symptoms are eerily similar to the story in her grandfather’s notebook.
When Solomon was a baby, a fever took him. HIs tiny body convulsed in his mother’s arms. The story of his illness was told so many times during his childhood that it became like a memory to him: his skin burning like a torch; the faces of his mother, grandmother, aunts, and uncles floating above him; his bones chattering and locking and sighing away from one another again.
As the novel unfolds, that suspected connection grows stronger. Everything in Marjorie’s life is part of a larger tapestry, and she, her sister, Nathan, and baby Eli, are all caught up in an ongoing story that stretches back from their grandfather’s secret past, and far beyond.
Feldman effortlessly weaves together myth, family, religion, history, and narratives within her narrative. Drawing on existing legends and traditions, she combines and expands these stories to make ones that feel real and weighty, as though they’ve always existed. She reclaims the story of the Wandering Jew–a Roman solider cursed for taunting Jesus to create her White Rebbe: a complex and tragic powerful magician, a seeker of knowledge, and an exile. This mythology deepens the story at the heart of the novel, the complicated and broken relationship between the two sisters. The theme of siblings echoes throughout, blurring the line between myth and personal history, until family legends become legends in actuality. Like Headley, Feldman offers up characters who are neither purely right nor purely wrong, all doing their best according to their beliefs. The Angel of Losses is also about stories themselves, the power of narrative to shape lives, hide pain, communicate across generations, and reveal larger truths.